Publication Date: May 9, 1997
Wild, Wild Web
Internet is sometimes likened to the Wild West.
The vast territory, with its "anything
goes" culture, has yet to be tamed by the
rule of law. Among the dangers of this new
frontier, for both individuals and corporations,
are defamation and harassment.
the case of Jayne Hitchcock of Crofton, Md., who
recently filed a $10 million lawsuit that many
people hope will set a precedent.
early 1996, Hitchcock, an author and teaching
assistant, answered an e-mail advertisement from
the Woodside Literary Agency of New York. In its
response, Woodside asked Hitchcock for a $75
reading fee and additional payments before it
would represent her.
up-front fees raised Hitchcock's suspicion:
Legitimate agents generally earn their money only
after selling an author's work. So Hitchcock,
through postings to Internet newsgroups, began to
warn other writers about a possible scam. Though
she was not the only writer to publicly question
Woodside's tactics, the company, she claims,
targeted her for retaliation, defaming her in its
ads and subjecting her to a barrage of electronic
the incidents cited in Hitchcock's legal
E-mail accounts used by
Hitchcock; her literary agent, Red Stone
Literary Services; and her employer, the
University of Maryland, were flooded with
messages, a practice commonly known as
A sexually oriented posting
made under Hitchcock's name included her
address and telephone number. This led to
a series of unusual phone calls,
unsolicited magazine subscriptions, and
at least one suspicious package (which
turned out to contain incense).
Hitchcock contacted local police and the FBI, it
was unclear how the author could press charges
because no actual threat had been made against
her. It would also prove difficult to track down
her tormentors, who had altered their e-mail
account information to conceal their identity. It
took a volunteer "posse" of Hitchcock's
online friends to decipher enough information in
the bogus message headers to connect names to the
complaint, filed in January in U.S. District
Court in New York, names as defendants the
Woodside Literary Agency, its alleged associates,
and all of the "John Does" and
"Richard Roes" believed to be connected
to the company. The case is being watched by many
Internet users in the hopes a decision will
result in direct protections under the law.
course, the kind of harassment seen in the
Hitchcock case is not limited to individuals.
Businesses, too, are vulnerable to e-mail bombs,
forged messages and other online attacks, often
with little recourse under the law. In one recent
case, a company called Cubby, Inc. sued
CompuServe for hosting defamatory messages about
the firm. CompuServe attorneys argued that,
unlike a publisher, the online service has no
control over messages posted through its service.
Rather, they said the service was like a
bookstore or library, entities that contain, but
do not control, printed material. CompuServe won
H. Sherden, an attorney with Boston's Peabody and
Arnold Associates who has practiced in the area
of intellectual property law for 18 years, offers
a few suggestions for protecting against and
coping with Web-based defamation:
Before choosing an Internet
service provider, contact each provider
to determine how much editorial control
they offer. Controls may not offer
perfect protection, but they do serve as
deterrents to offenders.
If someone has published
harmful, untrue statements about you or
your company on the Internet and
represented them as fact, you might
demand a retraction and an apology or try
to refute the message with a posting of
you are out in front of a lot of people like you
are on the Internet, you are going to attract
attention and open yourself up to defamation.
Unfortunately, it goes with the territory,"
Mellen writes from Tyngsboro, Mass.
article: Copyright Protection in
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